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Insiders guide to the British high tea

Insiders guide to the British high tea

story by: Anna Sarjeant

In the UK, where the concept of ‘afternoon tea’ first originated, it’s well-known that when the clock strikes three the entire nation stops and everyone sits down for tea.

Well, if this were 1905 perhaps. These days you might squeeze in a slurp of tea and a Hob Knob.

Grab a cuppa and read all about it...

1. The history
Rewind to the early nineteenth century and a young girl by the name of Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, is suffering from a grumbling stomach – again! At a time when most people ate only breakfast and dinner, poor Anna found she was borderline starvatious by the time the clock struck four.

In an attempt to keep hunger at bay, Anna requested a selection of teas, sandwiches and cakes – to be enjoyed privately in the confines of her boudoir. Luckily for Anna, you can make such farfetched requests when you’re a duchess.

Later she invited friends to join and soon the act of afternoon tea became somewhat a social affair, complemented by walks in the meadows, eventually reaching the fashionable high-society types of London.

2. The modern afternoon tea
Fortunately to this day, many hotels, mansions, stately homes and boutique cafes offer some sort of decadent high tea. It’s still a relatively formal affair, with china cups and three-tiered cake stands. As an added contemporary bonus, you can add a glass of bubbles – or three! It’s the perfect add-on to your stay in the UK; you’ll never have to look far for afternoon tea.

3. The sandwiches
Sandwiches should never be wedge-like but small and perfectly neat, with the crusts removed, cut into squares with perfect right angles, or triangles if you have a younger audience to enthral. Fillings should be resolutely British. Don’t go putting any French mustard in with your beef (that’s likely an arrestable offence). Of course, the classic cucumber sandwich is about as traditional as it gets, but unfortunately about as tasteless too, so stick with the smoked salmon.  

4. The cakes
There’s no two-ways about it, cakes should be buttery, fluffy and cream-filled, or so flaky they disintegrate on your lips and dissolve on your tongue. There should be something huge and spongey, preferably glued together with sticky home-made jam and a couple of fondant fancies lined up like sugary pastel soldiers. Ideally, there should be more cream than cake – oozing from brandy snap twirls and spilling from the gaps in éclairs.

5. The scones
Yes, a cake. But not just any cake. THE cake. So much so, the scone is almost the face of afternoon tea. Served with clotted cream, ideally from Devon where the cows are famed for their delicious produce. And then you must decide on an issue that hasn’t been resolved in centuries….

Cream first, followed by jam? Or jam and then the cream?

It’s divided the nation for an eternity; civil wars have erupted for less. So choose your spreading wisely…

6. The Tea
Seen as it’s called afternoon tea, the tea bit is really rather important. Loose leaf tea is the most common, favourite and flavoursome, but as long as it’s served in a grand teapot, bags are perfectly acceptable too. English Breakfast and Earle Grey never fail to impress but you are required to sip them from a bone china cup – pinkie raised to the ceiling. Duchess Anna would whole-heartedly approve.

Rest assured afternoon tea events sprout up in every nook and cranny of Britain, and fortunately, high tea is an age-old pastime that can be – and should be - enjoyed every day of the year.

Hear hear!

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